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“Holi” from Hindu Fasts and Feasts by Abhay Chaan Mukerji, 1918.

Holi is the gayest of Hindu festivals. It is celebrated on the day of the full moon concluding the lunar month of Phalgun, which roughly synchronises with March. It is a festival of unmixed rejoicing, and commemorates, in its mirth and gaiety, the innocent frolics of the youthful Krishna with the merry milkmaids of Brindaban. Krishna is believed by Hindus of all castes and creeds to have been a divine incarnation, who appeared on earth in the Dwapara age the third of those grand cycles or aeons into which Hindu thinkers have divided Time in its relation to the mundane drama.

Some followers of Krishna, who are generally known as Vaishnavas, do not reckon him as one of the Avatars or manifestations of the Supreme Being, but as the Supreme Being Himself in human form. Intense faith in a personal god is the distinguishing feature of the Vaishnava creed, which is broadly contrasted with its rival creed, Shaktism, or the worship of Power personified in a goddess, or the conception of the Divine Being in a female form.

The Vaishnavas and Shaktas represent two sects between whom there is still a great deal of antagonism, not in matters of faith only, but extending into the practical affairs of life as well. The Vaishnavas, for example, are vegetarians and teetotallers; the Shakta creed does not forbid the use of meat and wine. Holi is the most important Vaishnava festival, and ranks equal to the greatest of Shakta festivals the Durga Puja, which, like the Holi, is a time of universal rejoicing. But these two rival festivals have now forgotten their old rivalry, and Vaishnavas and Shaktas join each other in celebrating both with the greatest friendship and amity, so far at least as the exterior forms of the worship and the social aspects of each festival are concerned.

Holi is the great spring festival of India, the celebration of it not being confined to any particular parts of the country, but extending all over the land. In this respect, it even excels the Durga Puja, which is the great autumn festival of the Hindus. And spring and autumn are the two great harvest seasons in India, the time when the barns and granaries are full, and when the hearts of the agricultural population of India are for a time sufficiently relieved from the pressure of anxiety for bread to permit them to give themselves over to feasting and merriment. The harvest season is a festive season not only among the rural population of India, but presumably among farmers of every country, and, figuratively, among other communities as well, and even among the professional classes.

The only religious element in the Holi festival is the worship of Krishna. An image of Krishna as a babe is placed in a little swing cradle, and decorated with garlands of flowers and painted with gulal—a kind of crimson powder, also called abeer, the use of which by men, women and children is a marked feature of the Holi celebrations even in their social aspect. The swing cradle accounts for the other name by which the Holi is sometimes known Dol jatra, the word Dol literally meaning 'a swing.' But the religious element in this festival has, at least in these provinces, disappeared altogether from the external observance, and Holi has now become a purely secular festival characterised by mere rout and revel, with not even the mention of Krishna's name, except in "amorous ditties" also called Holi, relating to the gallantries of that god with the gopis of Brindaban.

Probably the most ancient custom connected with the Holi celebration is the lighting of a bonfire early in the morning, an hour or so before sunrise. Bonfires are in every country associated in the minds of men with primitive times, and the Holi has the distinction of being the only Indian festival honoured by a bonfire. These bonfires are lighted in every village and at street-crossings in towns. The exact origin of this custom of lighting bonfires cannot now be traced with any degree of certainty. There are two or three old legends purporting to indicate the origin, but they only help to lead the inquirer deeper and deeper into a maze; for not only are these legends humanly incredible, but they have different versions in different localities.

According to one legend, the bonfire represents the immolation of a ruthless Rakshasi (or female fiend), named Holika, from whose name the festival derived its name of Holi. This Rakshasi used to carry off and devour the children of the surrounding country, and so great was the havoc she caused among the juvenile population of the neighbourhood of her home that the people formed a plot against her, and caught her and burnt her to death. The legend, however, does not tell us either the name or the geographical situation of this ill-fated district. Now, since the burning of this Rakshasi afforded immunity especially to children, it is the younger folk who are especially enjoined in the Shastras to make merry during the Holi season.

Another legend says that this female fiend that is burnt in emblem on the morning of the Holi festival, was the sister of king Hirannya Kashyapu, father of Prahlad. This prince was a fervent adorer of Krishna from his very boyhood. His father was a disbeliever, and he urged the boy to renounce his faith in Krishna, using threats when persuasion seemed to fail. But the boy refused to yield. The enraged father thereupon ordered Prahlad to be trampled to death by an elephant, but the infuriated tusker knelt down before the brave child as he advanced fearlessly towards the beast, chanting the name of Krishna. The boy was then hurled down from the summit of a steep rock to be dashed to death; he was flung into a swollen river to be drowned, but he escaped from both as triumphantly as before.

He was then thrown into a blazing fire to be burnt, but the fire did not even scathe his skin. At last, Prahlad's aunt seized the boy and flung herself into the flames with him. For a while both aunt and nephew vanished from sight, and King Hirannya rejoiced that he had at last made an end of the wicked boy by sacrificing the life of his own sister. The flames soon died down, and in the midst of the encircling smoke the peering eyes of spectators discerned a little boy squatting on the glowing embers, as happily as though they were a heap of flowers. But the aunt had perished in the fire. The Holi bonfire is supposed to commemorate the fate of Prahlad's wicked aunt. This may be true; but it may also be true that some Vaishnava commentator of our religious books may have found an excellent origin for the Holi bonfire in this story of Prahlad, which is to this day a household tale in India.

Some authorities give a third explanation of the bonfire, which in their opinion represents the death of the old year and the commencement of the new. For, according to an ancient legend, the world was created by Brahma on the first day of Chaitra, that is, the day following the Holi. It does not appear probable that the custom of burning a bonfire on the last day of the year has been in existence since the day when Brahma, the Creator, gave birth to the world: more probably the custom originated in the time of Vikramadittya, Raja of Ujjain, the reputed founder of the Samvat era, for the Samvat year terminates with the Holi. The Samvat era, which is 57 years in advance of the Christian era, has still a very wide currency among the Hindus of the United Provinces, and the Benares publication of astrological almanacs is still based on the Samvat era.

This hypothesis that the Holi bonfire represents the passing away of the old Samvat year, gains some weight from the fact that the bonfire is as often called the "burning of Holi" as the "burning of Samvat." If this conjecture be true, we may extend our guess a little further and say that it was probably Vikramadittya himself who first instituted the bonfire, either as a mere token of popular rejoicing, or as a state measure designed in the interests of public health; for the fire provided a ready receptacle for consuming the year's accumulated rubbish in every populated area, large or small. For, we must not forget that the ancient Hindus well understood the hygienic and sanitary virtues of a blazing fire, as in all important ceremonies, domestic or otherwise, in which there is likelihood of any overcrowding, they have invariably prescribed a sacrificial fire, into which are thrown various kinds of offerings, the resulting smoke being held to be extremely efficacious in purifying the atmosphere and thus ensuring a measure of protection to public health.

There is no end of course to conjecture, and where the field of inquiry happens to be a department of Folklore, and the folk concerned, a people of such ancient origin as the Hindus, it easily affords scope to the wildest play of fancy. No doubt, fancy is the only resort where fact is hard to get at; but fancy, once let loose, is very unwilling to furl her wings. One learned writer on the Folklore of Northern India feels inclined, after comparing the Holi bonfires with similar observances in Europe, to think that they are "Sun charms or magical ceremonies intended to ensure a proper supply of sunshine for men, animals and plants." He admits that the climatic conditions of Northern India do not, as a rule, necessitate the use of incantations to produce sunshine; but he cautions us to remember "that the native of the country does not look on the fierceness of the summer sun with the same dread as is felt by Europeans;" and he also gives to the common Indian villager the credit of knowing that " seasonable and sufficient rainfall depends on a due supply of sunshine." It is not quite obvious, however, why the Hindu originators of the Holi bonfire should have been so anxious to ensure a "due supply of sunshine" in that particular part of the year, or in this particular part of the country, to which the custom is almost exclusively confined, seeing that, of all other provinces of India, these have always been most favoured by a plentiful supply of the brightest kind of sunshine.

The Holi bonfire is regarded as a sacred object. Every family, residing in the neighbourhood of the site of a bonfire, considers it its duty to contribute something either in cash or in kind that is, by presenting logs of wood or basketfuls of cowdung cakes for fuel. By prescriptive right, based on immemorial usage, boys are allowed to seize or pilfer fuel of any kind for the sacred fire, such as the wood- work of deserted dwellings, old stakes and posts, broken furniture, and the like; and the owner of these, when cognisant of such thefts, feels it his duty to keep quiet. When the fire is blazing, those present walk round it in token of reverence; and when it has died down, they pour water over the embers, and, before leaving the place, streak their foreheads with the ashes, to bring them luck during the coming year.

The most important function of the day is the "playing with coloured water" (rung khelna). Quantities of red-coloured liquid, made by mixing some sort of red pigment in water, are poured by friends upon friends, in friendly merriment; and there are visits from house to house, at each of which this mutual exchange of the sportive liquid takes place. Sometimes, the jovial fluid is dispensed with, and a dry red powder, called gulal or abeer, often mixed with talc, is smeared on the face as a more refined substitute for the coloured water. But the smearing of the face is permissible only among equals, juniors in age or inferiors in rank being only allowed to place a little of this dry stuff on the foot of the elder or superior, as a mark of respect. The elder or superior, in return, streaks the forehead of the other with a pinch of the same stuff, as a symbol of his blessing.

Among the vulgar, however, such niceties of etiquette are quickly forgotten in the excitement of the hour. No one is spared, not even women and children; even domestic animals are not exempted. As the morning advances the merriment increases, and the companies of merry-makers swell into crowds. In the face of one of these riotous crowds, it is as hard to escape a drenching as to save one's life before a pack of hungry wolves. It is no use praying for exemption, or rendering tender apologies, or making angry protests: such attempts only help to bring on the drenching all the more quickly, and with a vengeance. Among the vulgar, too, muddy water freely takes the place of the coloured liquid, and is squirted through bamboo syringes, right and left, in merciless fashion. Coloured water of some sort is deemed absolutely essential by the illiterate masses, and since pigments and dye-stuffs are rather expensive luxuries, a solution of street dust is held to be a lawful substitute. People of varied taste prepare rung in all the colours of the rainbow, though, strictly, only red or pink is orthodox.

The only people who abstain from playing with "ung" are widows and those who are in mourning for the death of a relative within the year. Hindu widows are prohibited for the rest of their lives from wearing any colour, either in their garments, or on their skin; and mourners must, similarly, dress in spotless white from head to foot, during the period of mourning.

The merriment reaches its climax at mid-day, when the folks go home and bathe, have their breakfast and take some rest before beginning the functions of the afternoon. These consist in visits to relatives and friends, and during these visits it is customary for parties to embrace one another. Old quarrels are forgotten, old friendships are revived, new acquaintances are created. Hindus do not object to embracing even Mohamedan friends, just as, during the Mohamedan festival of I'd, Mohamedans do not scruple to embracing their friends among the Hindus. The ignorant consider it a sin to change their red-stained Holi garments for a week after the festival, at the end of which another little festival is held in some parts of the province as a sort of sequel or epilogue.

A curious custom has come to be associated with the Holi festival, the custom of singing obscene songs in public places a custom that would certainly be more honoured in the breach than in the observance. These obscene songs are supposed to be addressed to the same female fiend that is burnt in emblem in the bonfire; but, unfortunately, they have been diverted from their original aim and are now flung at any young woman that might be passing by the spot where a rude fellow happens to be in a musical mood. These songs are known as kabeer, probably after the name of their author; but this discreditable composer could not have been the famous reformer of the same name, the religious follower of Ramananda, who conceived the bold idea of uniting Hindus and Musalmans in the worship of one common God. Whoever this debauched bard may have been, he well deserved to have been a kinsman of Dame Holika, in whose honour he first employed his metrical skill.

Holi is not only a day of sportive merriment and of ribald song, but also a day of good cheer, the choicest dishes of Hindu cuisine being prepared and partaken on this day. Even the poorest must have a tasteful meal on the day of Holi; and those who cannot afford to cook one for themselves, will go and beg it at the houses of the rich rather than go without it on such a sacred day. For the meal taken on the day of the Holi festival is really a new year's banquet, and the belief is that, if they have a hearty meal on the first day of the year, they will have a continuity of such meals through the rest of the year. Meat food is, however, absolutely forbidden, even among those who are not vegetarians, and sweets prepared from milk and curd are held to be in keeping with the dignity of the day.

Mukerji, Abhay Charan. Hindu Fasts and Feasts. The Indian Press, 1918.

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